“In 1757, the Nawab of Bengal’s army fought the British East India company for half a day here, and lost. Fifty thousand men were butchered wholesale where this grand manor house stands,” I overhear Mannu say. He has once again rounded up tourists from the Plassey monument, which sticks out like a giant’s middle finger in a field skirted by banana and jamun trees, and brought them to look at the rippling brick façade of our house. It is lunchtime—so, back in the dining hall, I continue to tear through fish-heads our cook baked into mounds of flavorful rice. Later I walk down to the corner tea stall to ask Mannu why he feeds visitors to our town the stupidest lies. The river swallowed most of the battlefield, I remind him, and whatever the water set aside turned into the sugar mill where his father, the swollen maggot, loads gunny sacks. My house has nothing to do with the bloodbath that took place more than two centuries ago.
Mannu shifts uneasily on the bench at the tea stall, sizing up my body, sickly and lean as a jute-stalk. Behind him, a kite swivels down the sky like a bright idea, then swooshes away, and is lost forever in a dim grove. My chest hurts from walking at a brisk pace to catch him at his regular haunt—my cough, loud and hard, rouses the goats chewing clumps of grass on the dirt road to bleat in harmony. Gradually Mannu’s pockmarked face breaks into a smile. We have never spoken before, since he is not from a respectable family, and he appears pleased at being addressed directly. “Call me Nawab, boy,” he says to me after a thoughtful silence, “and I will call you ‘pakati chief.’”
From that day on, Nawab Mannu comes to sit with me on the rounded verandah of our house through the afternoons, when thamma, ma, and my three sisters nap inside. The dry summer wind whips my hair and flaps his loose shirt. Sometimes we aim gravel at the waterless step pond in our yard and watch the stones dance on its parched belly. At other times, patting my lap, Nawab asks me to swear at the passers-by who don’t seem to mind a sixteen-year-old boy calling them names. If I falter, Mannu who is half dozen years senior to me says with pride, “You wait and see, chief, how I beat your delicate tongue into shape.” He speaks with his jaws wide open, as though everything he says needs vast amounts of space to tumble out of the pale-red tunnel of his mouth.
Neither Mannu nor I finished school—we had nothing to learn—but the neighborhood agrees that he is the one with a PhD in the art and science of wasting time. Few years ago, he fell in love with my eldest sister, and wrote letters, daily, informing her of the many ways she looked at him in his dreams. My sister usually shredded the notes without reading them, but this one time she decided to show a bunch of letters to his father. Mannu’s father read the love letters and dragged the Romeo out to their backyard for everyone to see. There came over the older man’s face bottomless anguish. He yanked a bamboo rod from a trellis, massacring a row of pumpkin flowers, and stabbed his son with the pointed end of the rod once, twice, thrice. Mannu would collapse to the ground but his father dug his black fingernails into Mannu’s arms, so he had to remain vertical through the beating. The old man took his time scraping his son’s skin, smooth in some places, bumpy like a crocodile’s in others, flaming red on the edges and before long, embossed with a deep-deep blue.
I can picture Mannu squirming, braying, foaming in front of his father even now, years later. A body absolved of crust and fat, exposed for what it is—a demon spirit. The shock and simplicity of it, I remember, for something happened to me that day. I had to run to my room, lie on my back, and tremble like a man possessed until I was able to sop up the irresistible scent of blood, remove Mannu’s nicked, flayed skin from my mind, and those animal eyes of his that had burnt into my brain. That was that—as soon as I overcame the fever, I felt foolish, and the mugginess oozing in my groin area, senseless.
After the public caning, it was days before Mannu surfaced on the streets again, and rumors of his imminent departure from the town were rife. Apparently, his father was planning to dispatch him to the Gulf, where he would join his uncles and work as a bricklayer. When my father found out about the whole saga—the love letters, the beating—he beamed and said, although Mannu is a jaat chamar, a boy from the lowly caste that used to tan cowhide, his family has a sense of honor.
But Mannu refused to leave town to everyone’s chagrin. Instead he began his stint as a tourist guide. He got a card made for himself at a print shop, calling himself a government-registered keeper of our town’s history. He brims with legends since. Taking puffs of beedis, he recalls for visitors how the Nawab of Bengal’s lead general sold his soul to the invaders and was beheaded by them in return; how in far off Calcutta, a zamindar sacrificed a goat to celebrate the Sahebs’ victory; and so on. Stories and stories; some invented, some intercepted from here and there. Mannu’s card identifying him as a tourist guide appears fake, even to me. So, I suspect those who tip him to know more about Plassey do so because he is a home-grown young man with curiously spotted skin and spick-and-span clothes willing to give them his complete attention.
One afternoon I am taunting the lame dhobi at Mannu’s bidding, when Mannu rises from his perch on our verandah and says, “That’s enough, chief, I don’t have any more time for these games.” It is the sluggish month of June, and Mannu looks exhausted, as he always does from searching ingenious ways of killing time.
It is too hot for him to find tourists anywhere around, I can see, so I ask him, “Going to cinema, is it?” This summer’s big hit is a film in which an aspiring musician accidentally blinds the woman he loves. A pirated print has reached the nearby video hall.
Mannu clenches his teeth, “What do you think I am? No cinema-vinema for me.”
So, what does a man do with his time? I suggest we steal mangoes from my family’s orchard. My brand-new catapult will help us stone and lop the silken gold Begumpasand, the queen’s pick. Afterward we will sit on the obelisks of soldiers who died for the Nawab to suck the fruit’s juice. Mannu glares at me as though he doubts my resolve. At long last he says, “Pakati chief, you are too sick, too slow.” I blush and pull a sad-little-boy face that melts him. “Ok, come with me,” he says, depositing me on the scrawny carrier rack of his bicycle.
We don’t land up in our orchard.
We fly past thatched tea shacks and an ancient red-brick mosque, mossed edifice from another time, before stopping at a dingy hardware store. The shopkeeper who was dozing to the purrs of a table fan starts up. Slapping the store’s counter, he asks Mannu, “Ei, what do you want?”
Mannu scans the boxes of nails, the hammers, the ropes, the pliers. The shopkeeper leans this way and that, trying to block his view, all the while stealing glances at me. I ask Mannu, “What are we looking to buy?” He blows his lips in response and leisurely scratches a hard stain on the countertop’s sunmica-lamination until his eyes settle on a stock of metal sheets and ropes.
In the name of my father, Mannu claims the rope. A thick, twisted hemp rope.
“Turn it over to us, quick,” he orders the shopkeeper.
The portly man is double Mannu’s age, more than three times mine. He retorts, “I don’t eat grass, you fools. You will get nothing here. Don’t abuse the Master’s goodwill.”
Mannu hoists me up to the countertop. Driven and ruthless, I punch the shopkeeper’s beefy chest in bursts, set a bristly tail-end of the rope free from its hook. The rope snakes out; a ring-necked ill-tempered reptile, it stings its jailer. At the end of that magical act, we leave the shopkeeper more numb than bruised.
Mills, mango groves, and windswept fields: that’s what my town is. “Can you imagine only a hundred years back crocodiles sunned themselves here?” Mannu asks me as we cycle through the snoozing world. Most of Mannu’s questions need no answering. So, I busy myself puzzling out all the things we could do with our loot—the rope—that is wound around me.
A petrol pump comes, a cyber café, then the Girl’s High school that my sisters attend. Taking a right just ahead of the white and blue school building, we enter a medium-sized orchard. This grove of trees hides a dome-shaped godown, where carbide ripens mangoes plucked before their time.
“Listen, Mannu, let’s go to my orchard,” I suggest and wink. “We will get away with theft there. No one will dare to tell me anything.” But this leads him to reveal we are not in the orchard to steal fruits. “Pakati chief, we will loop and braid this rope into a swing on a branch,” he says. What for? For a girl.
So, that is the matter with the Nawab I realize. He is in love again. With whom? He won’t tell. I chuckle foreseeing the flogging he is about to get when this girl reports his misdoings.
Mannu wanders in the shadows, scrutinizing branches laden with mangoes for their height and strength, while the 3 p.m. sun fries me brown like a peanut in hot oil. “Oi, Nawab, let’s build your swing already,” I prod him.
“Yes, come on,” he says after a while, “this is a good one.”
How do I describe the delight in his eyes when he has found what he is looking for? To me though, the good tree looks like any other tree. I don’t ask to know what he sees in it.
A shiny steel knife with a smooth tip and serrated edge comes out of his pocket. He has come prepared. I am still contemplating how he manages to think up such hassles when he locks me with an arm and grazes my cheek with the blade.
The suddenness of the attack makes it impossible for me to breathe. In no time, I feel the hard earth fall from under my feet. I am levitating with my flesh in Mannu’s grip.
“Let me go,” I plead. “I will kill you if you don’t set me down right away,” I warn him. “What kind of a man forces a boy to stick it out unarmed in a battlefield?”
Birds, comfortable in the shade of mango trees, dance and caw while I choke. The cracked brown face of the earth drinks Mannu’s trickling sweat. His pasty grip on me slackens, just for a bit, but he refuses to let go of me. The rope, its rough dorsal scales flaring up in the sun, crawls under us. I know now—the swing is a ruse; the rope is for me. He will hang me.
I try every line of argument that occurs to me when my torso is being squeezed and wringed. “I will tell my father,” I say, “I will tell your father,” and I make up my mind. One day I will kill him.
None of my threats works in the moment though. He laughs and says he is torturing me because Nawabs lose battles for their treacherous chiefs. There is mad fire in his eyes. “What about your girl, what about the swing,” I keep on badgering him with words, until he grins, plants a kiss on my forehead, and loosens his hold on me.
I run; run past the Girls’ High school, the petrol pump, the tea shacks, without turning to see how Mannu is going about the impossible task of knotting the snake’s hood into a swing.
Months coil and uncoil without my setting eyes on Mannu. He has stopped doing the rounds of our house. I wonder what he does with all the time he has on his hands, though I have no desire to go hunting for him. His deadly grip is still fresh on my mind, nearly a year later. In the long, vile hours I have to myself now I trap caterpillars in a shoebox and watch them turn into butterflies. Some afternoons I even sprinkle straw mats with water and sleep in the cool along with the women of the house; sleep and smother, let sleep dismember us limb by limb.
Up from a catnap on the mat, secreting something pale and moist, what do I see this afternoon? My middle sister is missing. She came back from school. I thought I saw her. I did. Is she in the bathroom? I take a walk, inspecting the perimeter of our house, the yard, the step pond. I pump the tubewell and splash water to clear my head. Then I venture as far as our orchard but nothing. I return to Ma who is snoozing with drool dripping from her lips. I am smacked with a film magazine for shaking her out of the nap. “What is it now?” asks Ma, irritable like a crow.
Thamma’s teeth chat-chatter in the glass jar set beside her pillow before it is buoyed up and fit back into her mouth. My elder sister yawns, sonorous and slow, and takes guesses. My missing sister will probably be at a friend’s place, she says. “Which friend?” Ma asks and my elder sister shrugs, “How will I know?” She gets a slap from thamma for always living inside her own head.
In five minutes the entire house is on its feet. “We must find the girl before dark. Your father will burn me alive if he comes to know any of this,” Ma says. Thamma swears, “And he should. Maharani can’t keep a nubile girl home.” My elder sister wipes sleep from her eyes, “We will find her. Where can she go?”
We split up; each go looking for the missing sister in a different direction—my mother goes toward the bubbling river. My elder sister runs east, toward the National Highway. My younger sister and thamma who have no useful insights whatsoever stay home in case the missing sister returns on her own, a tame cow at dusk.
Armed with a cricket bat and catapult, I follow the scent of my flesh. I wish I were lighter on my feet. I wish I were athletic. I would be, if I was not sick with the curse that has been infecting select offspring of our family for generations.
I reach the orchard with the godown, across from the Girls’ High school. It is a much sparser garden than I seem to remember, and the birds of today protest the sweltering heat. It is easy to spot the sinners through the gaps among the trees.
There is that rope cradling my sister, my sister at ease on the snake’s hood, and Mannu hop-skipping to make her catch the wind. Her printed long kurta rises like flames every time she swings, while the bottoms, her shalwar, wilts on the ground.
Mannu straightens up on spotting me, a little frazzled to find me at the place he almost bore a hole in my cheeks. My sister’s undulation comes to a wobbly halt. Nothing is stopping her from running into my arms, but she has ossified on the braided swing as though I am a ghost, not her own brother.
It’s Mannu who shatters the stillness of the tableau. He inches toward me, calls me “chief,” like in the good old days. Having nothing to say to him, I turn to my sister. “How did he get you?” I ask. Did he scare her on knifepoint or is it something else?
It takes several minutes for my sister to find her voice. “Don’t tell baba, please,” she says to me.
Mannu clicks his tongue hearing her plead with me, like he really is a mighty Nawab with everything under control.
There are times when I cannot look away from things even if I so will. It is for that sickness I have I suppose. I am not able to look away from my sister’s hairy thighs in this moment. I wonder if Mannu touched them with his filthy hands. I consider slipping my sister’s neck into the rope; picture her squishy limbs dangle like succulent fruits from a branch to be pecked at by cruel birds. That would be sweet revenge. I feel a fever coming on. I must lie on my back and tremble to cut out the vision singed into my brains, but I keep my cool for the time being. I manage to remain there, in my body. This is strength, isn’t it? I may be healing.
I don’t know when I wield my bat like the monkey-god’s blunt mace. My sister falls, and her knee grazes chipped stones. Crouched and flopped, a mess of dirt, she licks the sourness of her blood, blood of my blood. I will wash her clean once I am through with Mannu who is trying to tear me away from her. I elbow his gut. The impact makes him spring backward, hurt, and I pounce on him.
My sister attempts to disentangle the pair of us, but she is weak. I remain on Mannu’s belly, and with my legs clasping his hips I begin to extract his teeth: front tooth first, a canine next, then a molar until his gums resemble thamma’s. My sister screams, “He is just a boy,” as though I am the one being defanged. What a fool she is.
There is a lot of hubbub when we return home, my sister and me. In the days that follow, Mannu has much to say about what happened in the orchard. Stories and stories. There remains no tea shack in town that doesn’t hear a version of how he pulped me and granted me a new life, all at once. The liar. When the gossip reaches my father’s ears he exclaims, when will that chamar leave us alone?
A panchayat ruling disallows Mannu from haunting the neighborhood night and day, earn tips and blessings by duping unsuspecting outsiders. If he is let out of the four walls of his house anymore, it is on a leather leash that will go only as far as the length of their backyard. Then the rain comes, and it schemes with the river to swallow Mannu and his moldy house, ugly pests both, not worth an inch of the land they claimed. After the floods, his head turns up, baked into the mud in front of our manor house. His skin is wrinkled and coarse from drinking so much water. I ask for my father’s permission to keep the head.
Under the sun, I tan and chafe his skin. Only after it has smoothened, I begin to remove the membrane with care. It is hard work—extracting skin without slashing it. Naturally I lose count of the suns and moons that come and go. My raw gums get to suck the hide, bitter but zesty like a peeled orange rind. The hide goes in the garbage afterward, along with the bones. I release my last butterfly, a full-bodied creature that can fend for itself, and fill the shoebox with Mannu’s flesh. Lumps of his flesh are annals of our history together; extending, transfiguring into a little monument to show.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). Her shorter writings have appeared in Literary Hub, Catapult, Bustle, Entropy, Michigan Quarterly Review Online, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction 'The Time of Birds' was an honorable mention for 2019 Pigeon Pages Flash contest. A writer and professor of literature based in California, Torsa grew up in Bengal, India.